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November 3, 2012

The new face of politics

(Continued)

“Humans by nature are predisposed toward dualistic thought,” Frye said. That is, people tend to think in binary or “either/or” terms, feeling discomfort with ideas and statements that fall somewhere in between because of their seeming lack of clarity.

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian communications theorist of the mid-20th century. He is the father of the famous concept, “The medium is the message.” According to Frye, McLuhan taught that “certain forms of media introduce specific opportunities or limitations for an audience of or producer of a message. People are not critically aware of that when engaging with modes of communication. They are grappling with very difficult dynamics in public discourse.” 

Frye said that, in response to these difficulties, which are amply embodied by Facebook, people’s communications with others might evolve into the stark alternatives of the “open hand verses the closed fist, propaganda versus effective, beneficial social influence.”

One of the most profound thinkers about the Web and its effects on society must surely be Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who is considered the father of virtual reality. His 2010 book “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” is a critique of what he calls Web 2.0, of which Facebook is a part. 

In his book, Lanier explains why he believes the design of Web 2.0, the successor to the first Internet technology, depersonalizes and dehumanizes users. In his view, this is largely due to the technical problem of lock-in — the persistence of old digital designs when newer programs are developed to work with them, rather than the emergence of entirely new designs, which would require considerable effort by programmers. This can impose limitations on how users express themselves on social websites.

As most computer users know, information moves in and among computers through bits — numerical expressions consisting of the digits 1 and 0. This is called a binary system. As Lanier writes, “there is a new brittleness to the types of connections people make online. This is a side effect of the illusion that digital representations can capture much about actual human relationships. Relationships take on the troubles of software engineering.”

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